MANUSCRIPT ORIGINS: THE SLAVE'S CURSE
We can trace in Whitman's manuscripts the way he gave voice to Lucifer's rage. In the same early notebook that Whitman wrote his "I am the poet of slaves" passage, he wrote a few pages later a striking curse, angry words that he would eventually put in the mouth of Lucifer. It is important to remember that these pages come very soon after Whitman decides to speak both for the slaves and the masters of slaves.
In a later draft, now at the University of Virginia (and reproduced courtesy of Special Collections, Alderman Library), Whitman develops this curse and begins to more explicitly put it in the mouth of a slave:
Here Whitman works to turn his poem over to the consciousness and the sensibility of a black slave, allowing himself to be thought by "a negro" and letting his voice emerge from the black slave's mouth. Whitman's attempt is not to speak for the black slave but to speak as the black slave, an act that of course hovers precariously between subjugation of the black (who seems to be able to speak only when the white poet imagines himself speaking as a black slave) and full recognition of his subjectivity (the poet imagines himself inhabited by another, in fact inhabiting another). Whether the poem enacts Whitman's domination of the slave or the slave's domination of Whitman--or some endless, tensed identity transfer--it remains one of the most powerful and evocative passages about slavery in American literature. Two other manuscripts at Virginia (courtesy Alderman Library) allow us to see how painstakingly Whitman revised and re-revised, working toward the amazing passage.
Here the passage contains an image of death ("pennies on their eyes") that Whitman would later transfer to "Song of Myself." We can see the coffins and the lappets of the early notebook pages still at work here. His next draft carries the passage much closer to the version he would eventually publish, and he even writes "Sleepchasers" in the upper righthand corner, indicating that he was already thinking of entitling the poem, even though it would appear in the 1855 Leaves as untitled (and not until 1860 would it become "Sleep-Chasings").
But Lucifer's expression of hate and his vow of action against the slavemaster are not the final words in "The Sleepers." Whitman ends the poem with a vast unifying catalog, a vision of the universe "duly in order . . . . every thing is in its place." This absorptive vision includes, surprisingly, Lucifer now joined with his master, presumably after they have experienced the illumination of their oneness in an emerging democratic sensibility: "The call of the slave is one with the master's call . . and the master salutes the slave" . The image of Lucifer flaring into hatred and violent action is subsumed by the final image that offers a resolution more exalted than violence and hate, a seemingly unlikely resolution of love, understanding, oneness, in which the slaveowner now sees the error of his ways and joins voices with the slave, saluting him in some unspecified gesture of respect. Here at the end of the poem, Whitman comes as close as he ever would to attaining the voice that would speak for the slaves and the masters of slaves--"The diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite . . . they unite now"--but it is a voice that fails to alter the course of American history, and it is a voice that in no way begins to address what could, would, or should happen to black Americans after slavery ends.
The Lucifer passage lingers in Leaves through the first two post-Civil War editions as a kind of vestige of Whitman's antebellum desire to voice the subjectivity of the slave, to give the slave power and agency, and to imagine that that poetic act might be enough to change the slavemaster's perception of slaves, to coerce the slavemasters to recognize the humanity in those they treated as objects and possessions, as less than human. But these desires were increasingly anachronistic; Lucifer's cry against slavery seemed less and less relevant to the post-War concerns of the nation, where Lucifer's cry had changed to a demand for citizenship and civil rights. Did Whitman's Black Lucifer go on, after emancipation, to become a citizen, to vote? The question seems faintly ridiculous, because Lucifer fails to evolve in Whitman's work; the poet creates no black characters, not a hint of a representation, that offers a place or role for the freed slaves in reconstructed America. He toys with the idea of writing a "Poem of the Black Person," complete with "the sentiment of a sweeping, surrounding, shielding, protection of the blacks," but the poem never materializes.
Later, Whitman thinks of writing a "Poem of Remorse" in which he would "look back to the times when I thought others--slaves--the ignorant--so much inferior to myself / To have so much less right" (DN 791). He writes a powerful journalistic piece, evoking "the slave trade" and describing the horrifying conditions on slave ships that had still been operating illegally in the late 1850s out of New York. But Whitman adds no black figures to his poetry during the Civil War years.
And then, in the late 1870s, as he revises his book for a new edition that would be published in 1881, he makes a stunning decision. He deletes the "Lucifer" section of "The Sleepers," crossing it out on his working copy of his 1870-71 edition and marking two "d's" (one in pencil and one emphatically in dark ink) to indicate to the printer to omit the section. (It is worth noting that Whitman also deleted the George Washington section of the poem at the same time but then reconsidered and marked "stet" by that section, thus preserving the feminized image of the Father of the Country.). Whitman's decision to stand by the deletion of the Lucifer section meant that one of the great passages about black slaves gaining voice in American poetry vanished from subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass. Most reprintings of Whitman's work are made from his final edition, so most copies of "The Sleepers" in print today do not contain one of Whitman's most powerful passages.